The One Type Of Phrase That Can Break Even The Most Deafening Silence In A Relationship

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By Heather Gray

Constant conflict, chronic disrespect, and serious betrayals get a lot of air time when we’re talking about bad relationships.

It’s easy to understand that relationships fail when conflict is unrelenting. However, after working with couples for 15 years, it has become crystal clear to me that couples who fight often actually have a leg up on other struggling couples. At least they’re talking, even if they’re arguing. As Lisa Brookes Kift, LMFT, explains, not arguing means you’re not communicating.

Some partners avoid conflict because they think they’re keeping the peace.

They tell themselves that whatever is bothering them isn’t worth bringing up. It’s no big deal.

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Dr. John Gottman’s research has revealed that for some conflict avoiders, this interaction is good enough for them. It works.

However, as he details in "Principia Amoris," these couples are at greater risk of “drifting apart with zero interdependence over time, and thus being left with a marriage consisting of two parallel lives, never touching, especially when the children [leave] home.”

The unspoken issues and irritants add up until the tension hits a breaking point. Eventually, partners explode, or worse, shut down. They try to speak up, but by that point, it’s often too late.

They don’t have any gas left in the tank to fight for the relationship. They’re just done.

Maybe at some point, one or both partners did fight. They did try for an improved understanding. They worked for it. However, improvements failed to stick, nothing worked, and needs failed to get met until one or both decided it was better to retreat from the relationship emotionally and stop fighting for it.

Sometimes silence is a deliberate choice. No one is yelling or using disrespectful language. However, those on the receiving end of such silence hear the message: You have ceased to matter. You’re not worth my time or my attention.

So how do you break the silence in a relationship?

Start by acknowledging it.

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Here are some phrases that acknowledge (and therefore break) silence in a relationship:

  • "Hey, we haven’t been talking lately. I have been feeling X and just haven’t known how to bring it up."
  • "Can we check in? I know I’ve gone radio silent and shut down. I’m not even sure I can explain it all but I’d like to try if you’re willing to listen to me bumble about a bit while I sort it all out."
  • "I’m not sure what’s going on here but I feel like we haven’t spoken in X amount of time. Do you have time to talk tonight?"
  • "I miss you. We don’t talk anymore and I am not sure why. I haven’t asked because I am afraid you’ll say it’s my fault, but I miss you. I miss us."



Partners stop talking because they fear what might happen after the conversation starts.

What happens if we start talking and can’t work it out? What happens if I ask my partner what’s bothering them and I can’t handle the answer? What happens if I tell my partner what’s bothering me and they don’t care?

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Those fears play into why people stay silent. Tell your partner what’s on your heart by stating your fears.

If you’re worried about what your spouse might say, think, or do, be transparent about that. Tell your partner what you want them to think or know:

  • "I know I’m not the best communicator but silence can’t be good. I’m nervous that we’re going to end up in a fighting match. I don’t want to fight with you. I want us to work this out together."
  • "I know we keep trying. I know we keep failing but silence is giving up and I don’t want to do that."
  • "I know that we haven’t been talking. The truth is, I’m scared because I’m desperate for us to connect. I feel like we are on opposite sides and I want to feel like we’re a team again. I want us to figure out some way to work this out even though neither of us really knows how to start."
  • "Hey, I don’t want you to feel under attack here. I know I am to blame, too, but this conversation has to start somewhere. Our relationship is too important to me not to try so, here goes..."
  • "I caught myself the other day, telling a friend about how great you were with X. I realized I never told you that I thought you did that well. I can’t remember the last time we had a conversation that went beyond our to-do lists. Can we figure out a time to just check in, please?"

Now that you’ve broken the silence in your marriage and opened the door to connection, the next step is to walk through it together.

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Heather Gray is a clinically trained mindset and performance coach at Choose to Have it All. Heather uses her twenty years of clinical experience to teach business owners and leaders the necessary skills for combating fear, managing self-doubt, and shutting down their inner critic.

Co-founded by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, The Gottman Institute’s approach to relationship health has been developed from 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples.

This article was originally published at The Gottman Institute. Reprinted with permission from the author.